Opinion Sports Columns

Respect or Resentment for Heroes?

Josh Ernst

Opinions Editor

One week ago, the news of Joe Paterno’s death spread across the country, bringing to an end the story of one of America’s most beloved, and in his final months, controversial football coaches ever. Within minutes of his passing, social networking sites across the Internet lit up with the news and outpouring of support for the embattled coach. I lost track of how many people posted statuses or tweets offering support for Paterno regardless of the events of the past several months.

Now, I understand that I may be beating a dead horse here. But this issue has been on my mind, especially in the days following JoePa’s death. The unflinching support the man has received both before and after his death saddens me. Before Jerry Sandusky’s actions were uncovered, I was as big a Paterno fan as anyone. He was, seemingly, a class act, dedicated to an ethical, moral coaching style. But this past November changed so much of that.

When Sandusky, Paterno’s former assistant, was arrested on child molestation charges, it became apparent that Paterno had done very little when confronted with an eyewitness account of Sandusky’s actions, which led to a quick and loud outcry across the nation. Everyone from the media to those on Facebook were decrying Paterno’s lack of action. But there was a vocal minority defending Paterno. These fans refused to stop supporting Paterno, regardless of his actions. At first, I couldn’t believe this reaction. The man covered up the fact that one of his assistants was raping children in the Penn State locker room showers. What could make people still support Paterno?

What do we do when our heroes let us down? What do we do when our leaders, the people who are supposed to set an example for us, fail? Should we continue to support people like this?

Joe Paterno’s downfall shook the sports world and the country as a whole to its core. Paterno, the old school coach, the beacon of moral fiber, the coach who graduated most of his players, was involved in the cover-up of a sex scandal by one of his assistant coaches.

When Penn State took the only appropriate action and fired Paterno, Penn State students rioted. In my mind, the man deserved it. Anyone who doesn’t should read the grand jury report on Jerry Sandusky. But to many people, their love of JoePa overcame the wrong he committed.

Why do we as a society ignore the wrongdoing of heroes and leaders? The sports world is an excellent microcosm of this idea. People are still buying Barry Bonds’ jerseys despite the fact that not only did he cheat by using steroids, but he lied to a jury about those same steroids. Even on a less serious level, we still support players that hold out for a few more million dollars or put down their own teams.

Our politicians are much the same. We reelect representatives who work to line their own pocketbooks and work more for special interest groups than the voters who elect them. We should not settle for this. A man or woman should be judged by the entirety of their actions. Years of being an excellent football coach should not excuse Joe Paterno from responsibility in the Sandusky case.

When I was 14, one of my favorite athletes tested positive for blood doping. Tyler Hamilton, a professional biker and an integral part of Lance Armstrong’s string of Tour de France wins, was from my home state of Massachusetts and one of the toughest athletes I’ve ever seen. In a race early in his career, he crashed, broke his collarbone and finished the race. He then had to have his teeth recapped because he ground them together so hard because of the pain. But he finished the race. In the 2003 Tour de France, Hamilton crashed, again broke his collarbone, stayed in the race and finished fourth, his highest-ever finish in cycling’s most prestigious race.

But then he tested positive for blood doping.

As big of a fan as I was, I lost respect for him. How was I supposed to support the man when he cheated, when he worked outside of the rules to try and win?

The case of Tyler Hamilton illustrates why I can’t believe people still support Joe Paterno. He was a great football coach; there is no denying that. But look at what he did. Ask Jerry Sandusky’s young victims if protecting Joe Paterno’s legacy was worth what happened to them. We need to remember to judge our heroes not just by their accomplishments but also by their shortcomings.

Josh Ernst may be reached at jernst@springfieldcollege.edu

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